Gov. Asa Hutchinson referred to two Republican presidents in his speech at the Reagan Library in California Wednesday, but only one of them by name.
The one he named was, naturally, former President Ronald Reagan, whom Hutchinson said inspired him to become a conservative at age 13 when he watched him speak on a black-and-white TV with a “rabbit ears” antenna.
The one he didn’t name was former President Donald Trump, whom Hutchinson increasingly appears ready to oppose for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
Hutchinson made a couple of Trump-related references in his speech. In one instance, he said the “red wave” that didn’t happen in the midterm elections wasn’t a rejection of Republican ideas, but of candidates who “did not embrace Republican principles.”
“Historically, Republicans do not attack America’s democracy,” he said. “Republicans do not denigrate our political system. Republicans do not undermine confidence in America, and Republicans do not attack those institutions that are fundamental to the rule of law and preservation of our republic.”
Those types of candidates reflected Trump’s denial of the 2020 election results. He supported many of them, many of them lost, and now some Republicans are blaming Trump and saying it’s time to move on. In doing so, they’re a few steps behind Hutchinson, who’s been saying that for a while.
Hutchinson’s remarks were more targeted when he referenced a recent dinner Trump had with the rapper Kanye “Ye” West, who has made anti-semitic remarks, and another man known to be antisemitic and a white supremacist.
Trump says he didn’t know who the second individual was before he dined with him. That may be true.
Nevertheless, Hutchinson said, “I will never understand leadership that chooses to diminish or divide Americans, and I will never understand why a leader would give credibility to such hate-filled extremists by breaking bread with them.”
He recalled being a young U.S. attorney who wore a bulletproof vest during an armed standoff with a neo-Nazi organization where he assisted in the negotiation and arrest of the leader, and then prosecuted him.
Hutchinson spent a few minutes describing examples of his pragmatic, conservative leadership of Arkansas, including cutting taxes, reducing state government by 3,000 employees, building up a $2 billion reserve account, and keeping schools and businesses open during the pandemic.
He criticized President Joe Biden for his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, for his response to protests in China, and for his border policies.
He said conservatives should engage in culture war issues through their individual actions rather than trying to use government power, as some are trying to do now.
“If you think a business is too ‘woke,’ then don’t buy their stuff,” he advised.
He went full-fledged Reagan in saying that, because of the United States’ values, it “should always support the oppressed against the oppressors” including “evil dictators like Vladimir Putin.”
“Ukraine must win. And when it comes to China, the communist leadership must know our determination to not allow Taiwan to become another victim of China’s expansion,” he said.
Hutchinson closed by noting three Reagan characteristics. First, he was a consistent conservative who had the same message in 1976 when he lost that he had in 1980 when he won. Second, he was a pragmatist who worked with Democrats when it was best to do so. And third, he was optimistic.
“Today, we need leaders who mirror Reagan … We need leaders drawing us together based upon our shared values, not alienat(ing) us when we disagree,” he said.
Hutchinson thinks he can be one of those leaders – in fact, potentially the leader.
From 1980 until 2016, the Republican Party was cast in Reagan’s image. Since then, it’s been more Trump’s party, but Trump’s hold has been weakening somewhat. There’s a battle for the party’s heart and soul – whether it will reflect Reagan, Trump, or some combination of the two.
I’m betting on the third option. Hutchinson has made it clear which way he wants the party to go.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 18 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.